The Garment District
October 2, 2015
interview by Madeleine Campbell
illustration by Elly Dallas
Pittsburgh-based multi-instrumentalist Jennifer Baron has experienced a wide array of recording sessions over the last two decades. Fresh off the release of her current project’s debut full-length If You Take Your Magic Slow, she took time to reflect on how her past musical endeavors shaped where she is today.
How and when did you start writing and playing music?
My first music lessons were on piano in elementary school, which I took from an older woman who lived on our street. The best part of those too brief early lessons was learning Native American songs. I still have some of my Leila Fletcher Piano Course Books. I took a bit of guitar lessons in high school and college but am primarily a self-taught musician. I love to get together for family jams, all of us playing different instruments.
My experience writing and playing music in bands goes back to the 10 years I lived in New York City. I first played guitar and sang backing vocals in Saturnine, and then was a founding longtime member of The Ladybug Transistor, so that decade was filled with wonderful experiences performing, recording and touring.
Tell me about your experiences in The Ladybug Transistor.
I met Gary Olson at shows and parties. Ladybug was offered the opportunity to tour Switzerland with a band called Sportsguitar that had just signed to Matador, and I joined as bassist and the group evolved naturally from there, with my brother Jeff on guitar. I was one of four songwriters in the band, and we worked on music in a variety of ways. I learned a great deal about writing, performing and recording music, particularly since we had a recording studio in our house, and performed live very often, both in NYC and during extensive touring.
We played regularly at New York City venues such as Brownies, The Knitting Factory, Mercury Lounge and Bowery Ballroom. We released numerous albums on Merge [Records], as well as singles and compilations and toured often in the US, Europe, Canada, and Scandinavia. One particularly life-changing memory was collaborating on a cover of “Puis-Je?” with the late legendary Soft Machine co-founder Kevin Ayers, one of our musical heroes, for a French Pop compilation on Emperor Norton Records. One of my favorite experiences performing live was when we were invited by Belle & Sebastian to play at The Bowlie Weekender - the first All Tomorrow’s Parties - in Camber Sands, England, which they curated.
LBT’s 1996 album, Marlborough Farms, shares a name with the studio in your house you mentioned where you recorded several albums. What was the recording process like for those albums?
After living on E. 7th Street in the East Village, I moved back to Brooklyn, into a spacious old Victorian house in Flatbush, Brooklyn, with some of my bandmates - totally Partridge Family-Fleetwood Mac-style. Our studio, Marlborough Farms, was located in the basement, and was also named for the street we lived on. It was a highly productive time for us musically, when we made additional albums released on Merge, such as The Albemarle Sound and Argyle Heir. Our friends’ bands were always passing through, sleeping on our floors and playing shows or touring with us, including Of Montreal, The Lucksmiths, Neutral Milk Hotel and The Aislers Set.
Making the Ladybug records was integrated into our communal lifestyle, and I got to assist with recording and mixing our albums during that time. Sometimes it was all hands needed on deck. Many of the arrangements were orchestrated and lush. The band’s core lineup included trumpet, flute and violin. People would come down into the studio to assist, provide feedback or work on new parts in a very organic way that was naturally part of life in the house, rather than having to book structured time in an unknown studio that was very removed from where you conduct the highly personal aspects to your life. Gary is a gifted engineer who always creates a warm space of clarity and resonance within any material he records. We recorded, mixed and produced our albums at Marlborough Farms - everything analog. The Albermarle Sound was recorded on an Otari 1” 16-track machine. For Argyle Heir, the studio had a Sony/MCI JH-24 2” 24-track machine. We loved using the spring reverb called The Great British Spring, so much so that we even named a song after it.
Other studio equipment that was central to the sound of those albums included a giant plate reverb unit, located upstairs behind a church pew, a 32-channel Soundcraft Ghost console, a vintage Farfisa, and an Ampeg Gemini amp with awesome reverb, tones and optical tremolo. Vocals were almost always recorded using a Neumann U87 and sometimes a Sennheiser 414. The instruments and recording equipment around the studio seemed to have stories that were woven into the fabric of the house or its prior inhabitants. There was a room with hardwood floors, beams and shelves, where we would make demos on a Fostex 4-track, have low-key rehearsals, record piano parts for our albums, and host sing-alongs during the famous annual Marlborough Farms Christmas parties. We worked with our friend Joe McGinty on string arrangements for many of the songs, and had a fantastic cast of musical characters in and out of the studio playing violin, cello, oboe, clarinet and baritone sax. Occasionally we recorded a few instruments off-site, such as Mellotron at the Pigeon Club in Hoboken, and harpsichord at Carroll Music. Sometimes spontaneous collaborative recording would occur involving people who happened to be staying with us.
My standard favorite setup for playing bass live and recording with Ladybug was a Fender bass with flat-wound strings and an Ampeg B-15 fliptop amplifier. For guitar, I played my beloved red sunburst fireglo Rickenbacker 360, which I use often for Garment District recordings. My first electric guitar was a seafoam green Fender American Standard Stratocaster, a gift from my parents, which was tragically stolen during a show at Brownie’s in New York City. My all-time favorite guitar amp, which we used a ton on the Ladybug records, and I use for The Garment District, is my early-1970s silverface Fender Vibrolux Reverb, which I purchased from a Brooklyn Museum co-worker. In addition to my Vibrolux, we'd often use a Princeton Reverb for guitars.
Melody Elder, the debut tape of your current project, The Garment District, was released in 2011. How did this project and album come to fruition?
The Garment District is me with some contributions from family and friends. It can take various configurations for recording my music and performing it live. I have a core group of musicians who perform with me, something of a slightly rotating band of merry pranksters.
I recorded half of Melody Elder at home, and half elsewhere, with a combination of both on some songs. For the songs requiring more intricate production, or that featured vocals and needed assistance with beats, such as "Only Air," "Bird Or Bat" and "Nature-Nurture," I recorded in the home-based digital studio of my friend Kevin Smith in Friendship. I loved using some of his vintage gear, such as a Crumar, Microsynth, 1960s Silvertone amplifier and his Telecaster. I also used many of my own instruments. On Melody Elder, I play all of the instruments. Kevin helped me create the right beats for a few songs, and also added some samples to one song and circuit bending sounds to another. We recorded all of the vocals in Kevin’s studio, with my cousin Lucy Blehar singing lead vocals, and the two of doing backing vocals together.
The other half of Melody Elder was recorded at home along with my husband Greg. Songs such as "The Parlance,” "Apple Bay Day" and “Supermoon” are a bit more improvisational and were recorded with more emphasis on the feel and vibe of the first take.
Tell me about The Garment District’s next release, the debut full-length If You Take Your Magic Slow. What do you think sets this album apart from your previous album Melody Elder?
In a process that was similar to making Melody Elder, half of If You Take Your Magic Slow was recorded at home, while the other half was recorded in a friend’s home-based digital studio. This time, I had a great opportunity to work with Greg Matecko at Frankenstein Sound Labs in Hazelwood, PA. I knew that I wanted to have full band arrangements and additional instrumentation on many of the songs. I wanted to have a balance of songs that could be more improvisational or experimental, and juxtapose them with more carefully arranged work. I feel like the new album, being more orchestrated and arranged, is perhaps a return to music I had been a part of in the past and have listened to my entire life, and a logical and authentic extension of the way I hear music in my head and approach songwriting.
Instruments I play on the new album are: electric piano, organ, synthesizer, guitar, percussion, backing vocals, and field recordings. I feel so fortunate to have Matt Booth and Chris Parker for half of the new album. They are phenomenal musicians and have a rare combination of technical musical skills along with a natural sense of feel, timing and a groove. We recorded the basic tracks for bass and drums with them in Greg Matecko’s home studio, surrounded by vintage objects and instruments, tools, reels of tapes, furniture, and layers of Hazelwood history and memories.
Lucy sings lead vocals on my recordings; we have a natural and organic process of working on finalizing vocal melodies and phrasing for the lyrics, and then adding harmonies. My husband Greg has been a collaborator on some keyboard parts, and is an essential and fantastic listener for me to bounce ideas off and share songs in progress with. My brother Jeff plays guitar on a few songs on the new LP, and has a certain style that I wanted to showcase on certain songs such as “Bell, Book and Candle,” so I like to keep it a family affair when I can. All of the vocals were recorded with Greg Matecko, and it was great to try different locations in his house, such as a narrow hallway, for varying vocal sounds, percussion and backing vocals.
A lot of time, thought and energy went into planning for the recording of the new LP. That said, I also have some material that is recorded in a improvisational and spontaneous fashion and I try to tap into that and remain open to allowing unexpected things to emerge during the recording process. The majority of my music is planned out in advance when I am recording outside of my home and involving guest musicians. I work in a lot of different ways when writing music and preparing to record, scribbles in a notebook, demos made on our digital 8-track, iPhone sketches, piles of paper in my house, or all cemented in my head during bouts with insomnia.
I love recording music. It requires an intense level of focus and concentration. For me, it demands a certain mindset, almost like tunnel vision, but in a good way. I love the experience and feeling of creating a sound recording that is both permanent but also something that you cannot see. We are such a visually obsessed and digitally barraged age, that I think music can hold a very magical place because it is purely aural and energy. Actual vibrations and physics, but also highly emotional, visceral and subjective. I love that music exists in a particular point in time, with a beginning and an end, it’s temporal and also temporary, and can also take you to another place or time, to your past, or a partial memory, or can be escapist.
Some aspects to writing and recording music are highly personal and intuitive, almost a process akin to alchemy. You can’t always translate the process to specific language. When I write music, I don’t concretely or consciously think about influences. I try to focus on listening carefully to what is in my head and interpreting and giving that form. Allowing the instruments, melodies and counter-melodies, patterns, and textures to create a space in sound that transcends the limitations or pre-conceived notions of language. Lift the limitation imposed by narrative or words, and allow the music to become almost spatial.
What makes a great recording?
When the music, the sound and the feel are all inseparable. It is difficult for me to think about separating out or pinpointing qualities that make for a great recording if something about the musical content—the song, composition, melody, textures, instrumentation—does not move me. That is just where my focus and interest is as a listener and a musician. I am drawn to the feel and essence of the song itself initially and then I can further appreciate it via the recording qualities and processes.
I am uplifted by a massive range of music that I consider to be favorite songs and recordings. I prefer to listen to music on vinyl LPs or 45s. My husband has an astounding vinyl collection that has merged with mine, and we share a ton of musical interests and often have turntables going on both floors, with records everywhere. Favorites span 1950s-1970s psychedelia, folk, pop, garage, freakbeat; 1950s—1970s rocksteady, ska and dub; early electronic music; free jazz; 1980s NYC hip hop; 1970s-1980s pop and new wave from Scotland, New Zealand and Australia; and film soundtracks and TV and cartoon theme shows. I can be just as inspired by a brief interstitial composed by Joe Raposo for Sesame Street or a 1960s/1970s horror film soundtrack, as I can by some of my favorite albums. In any given week, in my house you could hear The Golden Dawn, Jackie Mittoo, Gene Clark, Syd Barrett, The Left Banke, Sun Ra, The Human Expression, Weather Report, Bobby Beausoleil, Fairport Convention, The Pretty Things, Suicide, New Order, Heldon, Jackie DeShannon; a list with no end!
What’s coming up for you this year?
In the Spring of 2015, I will have a limited-edition CD release on Kendra Steiner Editions, an independent label and press dedicated to experimental music and contemporary poetry based in San Antonio, TX. I will also have a new song included on a forthcoming vinyl compilation and mix series released by the French label, La Station Radar. I have already started working on demos for what I hope will evolve into opportunities for recording and releasing my next album after that. I also want to start volunteering with Girls Rock! Pittsburgh, as it is an amazing community that did not exist when I was growing up and an organization I believe in and would love to support.
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- Women in Sound 2019 -